Relationship Gridlock

In my experience, the most common reason couples report they are seeking therapy is communication. By the time you get to me you probably have a pretty good sense of what the problems are in your relationship, and you’ve likely tried to varying degrees to work through them on your own. But they’re still there. Those perpetual, reoccurring issues. Conflictual themes that like to sneak up on you and sabotage your connection with one another. You’ve tried every which way to talk through it, argue through it, get over it…but it keeps coming back. This is relationship gridlock and you’re seemingly stuck.

The good news is that with an open mind and a willingness to step outside the well-worn paths of your comfort zone, deeper and more effective communication is possible. Here are some key ingredients to improving the quality of communication in your relationship. Some of these are borrowed from the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy, in addition to my own insights from working with couples. See what you think…

  • Move from a win/lose mindset to one of collaboration and compromise – If one of you wins, you both lose. This type of adversarial dynamic sets the relationship up for failure and almost always ensures that nothing productive will come from all of the energy you are expending in trying to solve the issue. Compromise is easier said than done, but one way to evaluate your own position is to identify how much of your stance relates to your core values/beliefs and how much of it you may be flexible on. This requires honesty and a conscious effort to remove stubbornness from the equation. The goal is to move from, “How will you or I deal with this?” to, “How are we going to handle this together?”.
  • Shoot for a two-way dialogue, not a one-way diatribe – The dynamic should be more like a back and forth tennis match rather than a football game where one team is dominating the possession time. Make a statement and give your partner a chance to respond before moving on to something else. Otherwise you’ll spend an hour pouring your heart out only for your partner to have forgotten half of what you said and most of the points they wanted to make. This doesn’t honor your feelings or theirs and will likely leave you both feeling frustrated and unheard.
  • Be curious, not all-knowing – We are terrible mind readers. I repeat, we SUCK at mind reading. This is so, so important to remember because I see this tripping people up all the time. I hear phrases like, “She thinks I’m [fill in the blank]” and “I’m sure he feels [insert an off-base feeling here]”. Now this comes from a good place and in some ways it’s almost a natural result of being in a committed relationship. We think we know our partners inside and out, so at some point our brain starts filling in the gaps for them and we stop asking questions. The problem is that sometimes you can have an entire conversation with the partner that lives in your head without ever talking to the partner that lives in your reality at all. Then you’ll have negative feelings toward reality-partner because fantasy-partner said something snarky to you in your imagined conversation. See where I’m going here? Instead try checking your assumptions with your partner. Say something like, “I’m wondering if you feel [xyz]?” or just a simple, “What do you think about that?” should suffice. The idea is to create room for a dialogue in which each partner feels they can be heard rather than pigeon-holed.
  • State the obvious – While we are not great at reading our partner’s minds, we can also fall into the trap of expecting them to read ours. Nothing good can come from this. Your intentions, thoughts, and/or feelings might seem obvious to you, but verbalizing them can only increase the chances of being on the same page with your significant other. So instead of assuming your partner knows you feel hurt by their actions or ignored when they’re on their phone too much, clue them in and say it aloud.
  • Ask for what you need – To do this you first have to know what you need. Here’s an example: I get angry because my partner forgets to take out the trash. There is a fork in the road here – I either focus on my partner’s absentmindedness, they get defensive, and we end up slinging insults at each other OR I ask myself why this is bothering me first. What need is under the surface? Maybe it is the need to feel supported or cared for. I can’t tell you how many times I have helped couples connect dots between fights over seemingly mundane things that are actually fueled by much deeper needs. Getting stuck talking about the trash is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There’s always more to the story.
  • Avoid harsh conversation start ups – I’ll use the metaphor of a package to illustrate this point. If you receive a package wrapped in barbed wire, you’re going to get hurt so much along the way just trying to open it that by the time you get inside you almost won’t care what’s inside. Or you won’t even open it at all. The barbed wire represents the harsh method of starting a conversation about a conflictual topic. Something like, “You always mess this up” or “I’m so pissed at you”. The contents of the package (i.e. the point you are trying to get across) could be entirely valid, but your message gets lost in the delivery and a fight ensues. The moral of the story: wrap your packages in brown paper. A soft start up follows this formula: 1) I feel ________ 2) about _________ 3) I need _________. If it sounds basic and boring, that’s because it is. The idea is to stay emotionally regulated and focus on what you’re really trying to communicate to your partner. Otherwise you’ll just get lost in the weeds of strong reactions.
  • Adjust your expectations – You can’t wrap every long talk up with a bow. If you have been gridlocked over an issue for an extended period of time, expecting that every conversation you have must yield a solution in order to be successful is only going to make you feel defeated. Work toward developing a dialogue in which you are taking turns suspending your own judgement in order to understand your partner’s position more clearly. If you both do this simultaneously, it can do wonders for your connection even if you don’t immediately arrive at a solution.
  • Table it…but go back later – Be aware of when you’ve reached the point of no return. If you’re emotionally flooded or exhausted from the intensity, it is ok to take a break. You’re probably at a point where nothing productive is going to come from forcing the conversation anyway. There is a bit of an art to doing this though. If you’re pushing pause, find a time that you can agree to try to come back to the issue. Otherwise it’s easy for things to get swept under the rug, lie dormant for a while, and then come back up again at the most inopportune times. The key here is to be honest when you need to take a step back, but also intentional about regulating yourself and revisiting the issue with a clearer mindset.

If gridlock is something you’re struggling with, I encourage you to share this list with your partner and try these tools out. It might feel cumbersome at first or even a little silly, but those experiences may be helpful because they can slow down the process of communication and increase your awareness.

One last thought to take with you into tackling this – conflict can be an incredible opportunity for long-term growth and stronger connection if you can learn to tolerate the discomfort in the moment. In the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning (which I highly recommend reading), “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”. You’ll probably never look forward to disagreements with your partner, but viewing them as a means to grow closer and improve intimacy can radically transform the outcome.